NBA etiquette sometimes is a strange thing.
For example, it’s considered OK to dunk on an opponent and then drive your shoulder into his chest. It’s also considered OK, or at least not a fineable offense, to threaten to punch an opponent in the groin.
But the one insult that many players aren’t willing to let slide is the dreaded step-over, the NBA equivalent of treating an opponent as if he is gum on the bottom of your shoe.
How else can you explain the fact that two days after the Knicks’ overtime win over the Bucks on Saturday, fans and players still were talking about a play in the first quarter of the game?
We’re talking about the play in which Mario Hezonja committed what some consider to be the ultimate sign of disrespect. He followed up his dunk by intentionally stepping over Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had fallen after failing to block his shot.
OK, Hezonja didn’t just do that. He stepped over Antetokounmpo and then gestured with his arms for Knicks fans to get on their feet. But make no mistake, it’s the step-over that Antetokounmpo is going to be thinking about the next time the teams face each other, which will be Christmas Day at the Garden.
For what it’s worth, Antetokounmpo apologized Monday afternoon for his off-color choice of words when he said where he planned to land a punch. But he did not take the threat back.
“I’m a role model for a lot of kids . . . and I felt bad about that,” Antetokounmpo said. “What I said, I meant it . . . I have to choose better words.”
Before scoring nine points in the Knicks’ 110-107 loss to the Wizards on Monday night, Hezonja found himself being asked about the fact that one of the league’s biggest superstars had threatened to cause him bodily harm.
Hezonja seemed a little confused by all the attention still being paid to his move and said it wasn’t done in an attempt to rub anything in. In fact, he said he didn’t even see whom he was stepping over.
“No, what I said after the game, how it feels to get the crowd involved and everything, that’s what it’s all about,” Hezonja said. “Especially when we are at MSG and we have our fans here. You want them as much as possible. You can feel them right away. If it’s a dunk or some other great plays, they get involved and we feel like we have all the confidence, and that’s a great feeling.”
Yet there is a rich tradition to the step-over being used as an insult in the NBA. It dates to the most famous of step-overs, which occurred in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals. In a move that continues to be mimicked on playgrounds across the land — the Seattle Seahawks’ Tyler Lockett even impersonated it during an end-zone celebration — the 76ers’ Allen Iverson high-stepped over Tyron Lue on his way back down the court after hitting a jumper.
Another famous step-over occurred in Game 4 of the 2016 Finals when LeBron James did it to Draymond Green. Green was so insulted that he took a swipe at James, making contact near his groin. The two continued to mix it up and Green ultimately drew a flagrant foul, which led to his being suspended for the next game.
Hezonja’s regular-season step-over seems pretty tame compared to all that. In fact, Knicks coach David Fizdale pretty much shrugged the whole thing off.
“I grew up in a place where real disrespectful things happened and real things happened,” Fizdale said. “So what I’m saying is this whole thing about toughness and scrapping and hitting and, eh, I’m not getting into that, because it’s not real to me. What’s real is South Central L.A. So the rest of it is nonsense.”
Until the next time they play.